Building Capacity through Regional Coordination Mechanisms in Small Island States
Over 230,000 human lives lost, 1.7 million people displaced, an estimated US$ 9.9 billion in losses and damages, and a long and expensive recovery process to build back better that is still ongoing. Fourteen countries buffered the waves and paid the ultimate price. In them, the already vulnerable and marginalized populations were the most severely affected. The impacted countries suffered the loss of decades of development. If only effective early warning systems were in place, to evacuate people into shelters on time. If only we believed that an eventuality of this magnitude could happen, we could have stockpiled food and water. If only we had planned and prepared better. If only funds were set aside to help us recover faster. If only… In the history of disasters, no other event has forced the world’s leaders and international developmental aid organizations to rethink their approach towards disasters. This was the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26th, 2004.
I woke up to the news of reports on a tsunami and widespread flooding. Seychelles heard rumors that the tsunami was on its way to our islands. “Impossible”, I thought. Seychelles was paradise on earth and my paradise. Everything bad happened only on TV. A few hours later, 3 Seychellois were dead, a bridge had collapsed, a yacht was on a building, water was everywhere and our economy incurred US$30 million in losses and damages.
The UNISDR Terminologies for Disaster Risk Reduction (2009) defines a disaster as “a serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society involving widespread human, material, economic or environmental losses and impacts, which exceeds the ability of the affected community or society to cope using its own resources”. In the past, governments were, as much as possible, responsive to disasters. Today, most governments have adopted an integrated, comprehensive, all-hazard approach to disaster risk reduction and management. In other words, any eventuality that threatens human life, well-being and the economy, not limited to natural phenomena, should be assessed for risks, worse case scenarios should be highlighted and prevented through proper planning and policy. Disasters were a necessary evil and they will continue to be a necessary evil until we are all convinced that climate change is real, and failure to observe best practices in development means that we will continue to endure the consequences of our actions and inaction.
My internship with the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency’s Coordinating Unit (CDEMA CU)
My internship in Barbados coincides with the Caribbean’s “Hurricane season”, where Caribbean islands are on “high alert” for emergency response, due to the potential and unpredictable disruptions and destruction brought about by the weather this time of the year. Similar to the Indian Ocean and Seychelles, our “wet season” from October to March is when we ensure all emergency mechanisms are in place and that we are as ready as possible for emergency response and coordination. These would be the times when the sound of heavy rain wakes emergency responders up while everyone else in safe homes fall peacefully asleep. This is not to say that we should not always be prepared but there are specific seasons where natural phenomena increase the probability of catastrophes.
What is CDEMA?
The Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) is a regional intergovernmental agency for disaster risk management within the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). Currently, it consists of 18 Caribbean participating states. There are 4 sub-regional focal point countries, each responsible for participating states within their region. The Coordinating Unit (CDEMA CU) is headquartered in Barbados. CDEMA is responsible for mobilizing disaster relief, supporting participating States to coordinate emergency response, and developing and encouraging participating states to adopt best practices and policies in disaster risk reduction and management.
CDEMA Staff are from several of the participating States, namely Barbados, Belize, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Dominica, St. Lucia and Guyana. I enjoy hearing the various Caribbean accents on a daily basis and feel privileged to be exposed to different Caribbean cultures and talent.
Regional Disaster Risk Management Platforms: Why did I choose CDEMA?
My interest in CDEMA stems from regional projects I have been involved with back in the Seychelles. With the help of the World Bank and the UNISDR, we have been looking into ways to build regional capacity across the Indian Ocean islands towards disaster risk reduction and management through financial protection mechanisms for disaster recovery, training of trainers programs, investing in public education, sensitization and awareness, improving our laws and policies and beefing up our information and communication systems.
The importance of involving government is developing accountability and credibility for member states. The platform will ensure that no member state is left behind and that we progress together.
My work with CDEMA
“Excuse me everyone, is this the bus I take to CDEMA?” I asked. I had entered a bus, full of people and announced this question as if I were addressing a classroom full of students. This approach I took was one that a bus driver from another bus told me to take. A friendly man reassured me that he knew where I was headed and that he would stop the bus when we got there. I had become one of the many “lost tourists” I used to see around back home in Seychelles.
“Shake! Shake! Shake!” I heard over the intercom of the Deputy Executive Director, Ms. Elizabeth Riley’s office. She was briefing me about the CDEMA strategy no later than the first hour of my first day of the internship. They were conducting an internal Earthquake simulation and I had ended up under the table being told to “drop, cover and hold”. I knew then that these 10 weeks would be challenging but in the most enjoyable way.
My main task for the 10 weeks in CDEMA CU is to support the Education and Training Specialist in developing products to consolidate their Regional Training Center, mainly to enhance their media training program and to conduct a training needs assessment customizable for all 18 participating states. In addition to the work assigned, I also partake in activities organized. In Disaster Risk Management, practitioners wear various hats depending on whether it is “normal time” or “emergency time” and preparing for these “times” require staff involvement in all preparedness and drills so that in any eventuality, staff are equipped with at least the basic know-how of the emergency. It is crucial that there is no lack in knowing what one’s role is during an emergency and being able to plug-in to the gaps if one’s colleagues are not present. I have already benefited from radio training, the opportunity to observe the Regional Security System training at Barbados’ Paragon military base and other emergency simulations.
How will this benefit my career?
After graduation, I will resume working with the Seychelles government and fulfil our Disaster Risk Management Strategy which is in line with my interests regarding the potential establishment and development of an Indian Ocean Disaster Risk Management platform.
Visit to the Rotary Club of Barbados
Thanks to a wonderful network of Rotarians in North Carolina and Barbados, I was introduced to and invited for lunch with the Rotary Club of Barbados. I delivered a short presentation on my journey as a Rotary Peace Fellow so far and enjoyed the questions they asked about Disaster Risk Management.
Much appreciation goes to the entire CDEMA CU team for their incredible support and guidance with regard to my internship. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Duke-UNC Rotary Peace Center for supporting my decision with much enthusiasm, the Rotary Foundation and Rotarians for allowing us this incredible opportunity. I would also like to extend my thanks to the Division of Risk and Disaster Management, Seychelles team who have played a crucial part in the development of my vision for the future of Disaster Risk Management in the Indian Ocean Region and for Small Island Developing States.
Oxfam. (2014). The Indian Ocean tsunami, 10 Years On: Lessons from the Response and Ongoing Humanitarian Funding Challenges. Oxford.
United Nations Environmental Programme. (2005). Seychelles Post-tsunami Environmental Assessment. Victoria: UNEP.
UNOCHA. (2006). OCHA in 2006: Activities and Extra-Budgetary Funding Requirements. Retrieved June 20, 2016, from unocha.org: http://www.unocha.org/ochain/2006/chap6_1.htm